Game of Thrones is HBO’s most popular series ever in terms of ratings. Some might argue that this is because of the violence and sex. Others might point to the production values, the high quality writing, or the narrative twists that reverse our expectations of the fantasy genre.
All of those things contribute to the show’s popularity, but what really sets Game of Thrones apart is that it’s a well-told disaster story. From the first season on, civilization falls in slow motion: social and political structures collapse one by one, and human cruelty is a spectacle as great as any asteroid, alien invasion, or flood. We visit a world where all the restrictions are gone. The rules that keep us safe, and the rules that hold us back cease to exist. As the ubiquity of Game of Thrones reveals, we’re terrified and excited by what we might learn in the chaos.
While most disaster stories follow from an external threat (invasions, contagions, freak acts of nature, etc), Game of Thrones shows us a civilization that slowly implodes from within. Alliances break down until most of the characters can only rely on themselves. Rather than uniting against a common enemy, the citizens of Westeros find that those they’ve considered their friends have been waiting to make themselves foes all along.
The supernatural “White Walkers” have been marching toward the kingdom since the first episode, but they’ve yet to arrive. In the meantime, the kingdom is destroying itself as its individual citizens fight for position and power. This is a disaster story for the age of polarized national politics, when we fear that our “imagined communities” could just as easily be unimagined, when we are less afraid of being killed by outsiders than that we will kill ourselves. Game of Thrones indulges our fear, but it also indulges our hope. We identify with the characters who survive, and we mentally rehearse for the day when we’ll do the same thing.
It is this two-sided dance of destruction that makes the show so engaging. Most of the major surprises in the story follow from the loss of protections we expect in a working society. When Ned Stark is killed at the end of the first season, it’s shocking not only because it violates our expectations of narrative (he was, for all intents and purposes, the main character until that point), but because it violates our expectations of justice. Ned is presented as the last honourable man in Westeros, and he dies trying to uphold the rule of law—that is, trying to ensure that the iron throne is inherited by its legal heir.
Had Ned behaved less honourably by failing to inform the Queen of his intentions, or been less wedded to the letter of the law by supporting the King’s most popular brother in his claim, rather than the brother who was technically next in line, he might have survived. But it’s trying to do the right thing—specifically, trying to follow the law—that gets him killed.
The “Red Wedding” of season three, during which Walder Frey murders most of his guests, is similarly surprising, not just because more of the major characters die, but because the massacre violates several of the social contracts that hold the kingdom together. Frey has been a bannerman to House Tully—one of the strongest alliances there can be between houses—and he kills Tullys at a celebration where his daughter is to wed one. He’s also violating important social customs by betraying guests to whom he has extended his hospitality. If Ned’s death ends the rule of law, the Red Wedding ends the bonds of loyalty and fealty between the houses. The later “Purple Wedding”, at which the reigning king is killed by one of his guests, just confirms this.
As the series wears on, we see that other, less formal bonds and currencies break down as well. Jaime Lannister loses a hand because his wealth and family name no longer secure his safety. Sansa Stark’s “friends” always turn out to have an ulterior motive for kindness. Tyrion Lannister is betrayed by his father and sister. Lysa Arryn murders her husband before being killed by the man she has loved. Theon Greyjoy’s father abandons him first to the Starks, and then to the Boltons. Friendship, family, money, and titles: all of the safety nets fail as the kingdoms, once united, continue to war with each other. The result is chaos—and a stunning orgy of violence for us to take in—but also opportunity.
Petyr Baelish, aka “Littlefinger” (Aidan Gillen) in Game of Thrones
One of the series’ less likable characters, Petyr Baelish (also known as Littlefinger), reminds us that “chaos is a ladder”; that the realm is an illusion, and “the climb is all there is.” Baelish, we are often reminded, was born without any wealth or titles, and has since clawed his way up to lordship. His most notable act in season one is to betray Ned Stark to the people who later kill him, and we learn in season four that he deliberately orchestrated the clash between houses so that he could benefit from the resulting instability. We aren’t really cheering for him, but he’s right when he says that chaos is an opportunity, one that serves people who were at a disadvantage under order.
The priestess Melisandre is a former slave who becomes one of the most powerful women in Westeros. She could improve her position even more, if she is successful in putting Stannis Baratheon on the throne. It’s also doubtful whether anyone would have taken the realm’s only female knight, Brienne of Tarth, very seriously if she hadn’t found herself in the middle of war that required her skills. The sellsword, Bronn, has become wealthy by working as a bodyguard for Tyrion Lannister, who wouldn’t be in so much danger if the Starks hadn’t turned on the Lannisters. Several of the lesser houses, including the Greyjoys and Boltons, have used the war as an opportunity to try to seize more land.
As alliances crumble, and social institutions fall, survival increasingly becomes an individual sport, less dependent on cooperation and good will than on brute force and cunning. It’s frightening, because it means that there’s nothing to stop the brutish or cunning from trampling over the rest of us; simultaneously, however, it’s liberating, if we believe that we could rise to the occasion of trampling others ourselves.
Twice now, one of the most likable characters, Tyrion, has demanded a trial by combat rather than trial by judge. This is cunning of him, and we admire it, because he’s opting out of a judicial system that seems hopelessly biased and ineffective. He turns the law against itself by invoking this little-used right and by also invoking his right to a champion, rather than fighting himself. The question of his guilt or innocence is no longer something that has to be proved through testimony and facts—all of the tedium of the courtroom with all of its opportunities for corruption. Instead, it will be decided by who can hit whom with a sword. This is, of course, a terrible way to determine whether someone is guilty, but it’s satisfyingly direct, and it gives a character we like (and whom we know to be innocent) an opportunity to fight back against a system that’s biased toward him.
Interestingly—and maybe tellingly—each time Tyrion demands a trial by combat, the people who would stand for him out of love or loyalty are unavailable. Instead, during his first trial, at the Eyrie, he’s saved by Bronn, who selfishly agrees to be his champion in exchange for money. Bronn wins his match against Lady Arryn’s knight by fighting without honour, and Tyrion is free to go. At his second trial, Oberyn Martell agrees to be Tyrion’s champion, primarily so that he can get revenge on the Queen’s champion, The Mountain. We’ve spent the entire season hearing how The Mountain raped and murdered Oberyn’s sister, and it feels like justice will be served on several fronts if Oberyn wins the duel. Unfortunately, he loses, and The Mountain crushes his skull, resulting in a guilty verdict for Tyrion.
Part of the enjoyment of a disaster story is that the complicated, frustrating business of daily living is boiled down to a series of simple, high-stakes decisions. Do we run for higher ground? Do we nuke the aliens? How can we blow up this asteroid? How do we get off this boat? The urgency of the situation means that there isn’t time for nuance or debate, or to worry too much about the long-term consequence of action. The characters lurch from crisis to crisis, deciding on the spur of the moment what they should do to survive. It’s appealing, because, in these situations, it’s clear what you need to do and what successful achievements look like.
Trial by combat is a terrible judicial system, but it reduces the complicated questions of justice to a question of survival, something unambiguous that everyone can understand. Most of us, if we aren’t lawyers, wouldn’t know where to begin in presenting a criminal case to the courts. We might not understand the appeals process, or sentencing, or what type of evidence isn’t admissible. It might be easier to imagine that we could win a sword fight or pay someone to win it for us, especially if we already suspect that the current justice system doesn’t work.
On the other hand, we also see that mean forms of justice have their limitations. When Tyrion employs trial by combat purely as a survival strategy, it works out well for him. His motives in the Eyrie are less related to principle than they are to avoiding a terrifying death, and the motives of his champion are similarly narrow. He uses the finality and lack of ambiguity in trial by combat to his advantage and, while the result may be what we wanted, we’re forced to recognize that Tyrion and Bronn had to fight dirty to get it.
The Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) in Game of Thrones
During his second trial, Tyrion demands a trial by combat for reasons almost purely related to principle. He’s been offered clemency if he enters a plea of guilty, but it disgusts him to stand in a courtroom and listen to lies under the banner of justice. His champion, in the second case, is also motivated by a righteous cause—Oberyn not only wants revenge for the death of his sister, he wants a confession from The Mountain, implicating anyone else who may have been involved, so that the public can see that his actions are just. In fact, it is his insistence on getting this confession—of clarifying that his actions are morally right, in a public forum—that leads to his death. He drags out the fight for too long and The Mountain surprises him in an unguarded moment. Just to drive the point home, The Mountain confesses before killing Oberyn, because his confession means nothing; trial by combat is about who survives, not high-minded questions of justice.
In a world where most disputes are permanently and unambiguously resolved by someone’s death—whether that’s through trial by combat or murder—life feels both more important and simpler. There’s no debate or hesitation; no second-guessing ourselves; no revisiting the specific language of laws that were drafted six years ago to determine whether they contradict the intended meaning and spirit of laws that were drafted six years before that. In Westeros, nobody is bored and neurotic; no one we spend any time with works in a regular trade; no one is confused by the different types of olive oil at the store; no one is helplessly trapped in a life they don’t want. The ladder of chaos is an opportunity for anyone with daring to ascend, and everyone lives in the moment until being brutally killed. Even if the cost of failure is so much higher in that world, we may imagine that we’d like to take our chances, there—that the risks are balanced by the possibility of high reward.
Game of Thrones trades in everything good and bad about nations and realms for everything good and bad about pure individualism. It shows us that, in a world without the protections and limitations of a society, there’s no ceiling on what you can achieve, and no floor on the depths you can sink to. One outcome is exciting, and the other is terrifying—the tension any good disaster story runs on. Game of Thrones entertains us with spectacle, terrifies us with scenes of destruction, and excites us with promises of simpler and more urgent calls to action.
Although snow has hit the ground in the northland, the terrifying winter we were warned about isn’t a literal storm. It’s isn’t the rise of the frozen undead, or the fairytale monsters north of the wall—it isn’t even Daenerys Targaryen, across the Narrow Sea. So far, the only thing that’s attacked the people of Westeros is other people of Westeros.
In showing us a disaster that comes from within, one that splits apart the populace, rather than uniting it together, Game of Thrones indulges our fears and dark fantasies of a world where structures depending on allegiance and cooperation no longer hold. A world where everyone’s left to rely on him or herself, fighting a series of one-on-one battles, climbing until we get knocked off the ladder.
Baelish is right when he says that the realm is imagined, that its existence depends on our agreeing to tell ourselves it’s real. Game of Thrones is enticing because it helps us flirt with the idea that our agreed-upon reality could end—that, instead, we might imagine ourselves to disaster.